But the build-up to what’s really happening at this insanely expensive restaurant on the secluded island of Hawthorne is more intriguing than the actual payoff. The performances remain prickly, the banter deliciously snappy. And “The Menu” is always exquisite from a technical perspective. But you may find yourself feeling a bit hungry after this meal is over.
An eclectic mix of people boards a ferry for the quick trip to their storied destination. Chef Slowik’s fine-tuned, multi-course dinners are legendary—and exorbitant, at $1,250 a person. “What, are we eating a Rolex?” the less-than-impressed Margot (Anya Taylor-Joy) quips to her date, Tyler (Nicholas Hoult), as they’re waiting for the boat to arrive. He considers himself a culinary connoisseur and has been dreaming of this evening for ages; she’s a cynic who’s along for the ride. They’re gorgeous and look great together, but there’s more to this relationship than initially meets the eye. Both actors have a keen knack for this kind of rat-a-tat banter, with Hoult being particularly adept at playing the arrogant fool, as we’ve seen on Hulu’s “The Great.” And the always brilliant Taylor-Joy, as our conduit, brings a frisky mix of skepticism and sex appeal.
Also on board are a once-popular actor (John Leguizamo) and his beleaguered assistant (Aimee Carrero); three obnoxious, entitled tech dudes (Rob Yang, Arturo Castro, and Mark St. Cyr); a wealthy older man and his wife (Reed Birney and Judith Light); and a prestigious food critic (Janet McTeer) with her obsequious editor (Paul Adelstein). But regardless of their status, they all pay deference to the star of the night: the man whose artful and inspired creations brought them there. Ralph Fiennes plays Chef Slowik with a disarming combination of Zen-like calm and obsessive control. He begins each course with a thunderous clap of his hands, which Mylod heightens skillfully to put us on edge, and his loyal cooks behind him respond in unison to his every demand with a spirited “Yes, Chef!” as if he were their drill sergeant. And the increasingly amusing on-screen descriptions of the dishes provide amusing commentary on how the night is evolving as a whole.
Of these characters, Birney and Light’s are the least developed. It’s particularly frustrating to have a performer of the caliber of Light and watch her languish with woefully little to do. She is literally “the wife.” There is nothing to her beyond her instinct to stand by her man dutifully, regardless of the evening’s disturbing revelations. Conversely, Hong Chau is the film’s MVP as Chef Slowik’s right-hand woman, Elsa. She briskly and efficiently provides the guests with a tour of how the island operates before sauntering among their tables, seeing to their every need and quietly judging them. She says things like: “Feel free to observe our cooks as they innovate” with total authority and zero irony, adding greatly to the restaurant’s rarefied air.